This month over at The Food Connection we’re inaugurating an award in honor of one of my favorite farmers of all time (which is really saying something), Bill Best. This post (posted first at my ‘From the Director’ blog) sums up my thinking on the value of folks like Bill to our community.
You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems
You might miss Bill in a crowd. He has a soft voice with a gentle Appalachian drawl. He asks thoughtful questions and humbly offers advice or knowledge when invited. If you’re not paying attention, you may also miss the invaluable role he’s played in preserving the genetic heritage and agricultural history of Central Appalachia. The stories he tells about seed-saving are as much about the gardeners and families who have entrusted him with their heirlooms as they are about his work preserving them. Back home we would describe him as a “good neighbor.” Some people in the sustainable agriculture community would likely call him a hero.
All heroes need an origin story. Bill Best refused to accept that he would never again enjoy the tender-skinned greasy beans that he grew up alongside in his grandmother’s garden. And so, he got to work; he turned the soil, tended his fields, and his farmstead became a sanctuary for the agricultural heritage of mountain communities and the plants they have loved. A precious as gold and twice as rare, families have entrusted Bill with their history, held closely inside those smooth and speckled seed casings.
We don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds
That said, I would never call Bill Best a hero. To me, Bill is a steward, which I would argue is a more noble title for those of us who strive to care for our food system. Our Jack saved the beanstalk from the giant not for financial gain or glory, but to ensure the cultural survival and self-reliance of his community. Unlike the bravado of heroism, stewardship is the slow work of the seasons; found in the practical labors of caring for each other and the land that sustains us.
The mark a steward leaves is not an indelible carving of the earth (or the blasting of one’s visage into the mountainside). Unfortunately, our nation’s farming systems have also gone this way: bulldozed into uniformity by captains of industry. Absent stewardship, our food systems become unmoored, changing with the winds of fashion or price swings at the board of trade.
Even in the so-called ‘good food’ community, we fall prey to the cult of celebrity. We can all name the half dozen “super-star” farmers, chefs or authors with the silver bullet model for solving sustainable agriculture or urban food insecurity. You can pay big bucks to hear them speak, tour their farms and facilities, and buy their latest book to learn all the answers. But can they describe the poetic twining of a runner bean around its trellis? Do they carry the story of that bean close to their heart? I would offer that to heal our food systems we don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds.
The gentle legacy of stewardship
The legacy of a steward is found in a gentler path, fit for the mountains Bill calls home; carried in song and verse, passed hand to hand, mended and endlessly re-woven. Grounded in an intimate knowledge of land and place, our food and farm stewards build our self-reliance while simultaneously showing us our deep interconnection. They give generously of their knowledge and skill, safe in the understanding that our true wealth and joy can only multiply as they are shared.
As Bill once told me: “You grow tomatoes for money, and beans for love.” I love this quote because it doesn’t diminish the tomato or the bean, or the farmer that grows them, and embraces the simple truths of a what it takes to build a livelihood. In Bill’s words, I hear echoes of the old protest songs calling for Bread and Roses; our labors should bring us not only prosperity but also dignity and joy.
We don’t come to sustainable food systems for a quick buck, but for the long work of learning how to abide together and live from the earth as well as possible. Many of us owe Bill a debt of gratitude. He shared his seeds and wisdom with me in my early days of bean enthusiasm, and I am not alone in my tender affection and deep admiration for this farmer with his coveralls and leather britches. But how do you honor someone whose humility and generosity defines their legacy? I offer that we treat his gifts to us with the same stewardship he has practiced. We tend to the heirlooms of our past by preparing them for brighter futures. We get to work.